But just as Dutch and Scandinavian populists now use gay rights and feminism as symbolic cudgels with which to attack Islam, right-wing leaders have taken up "the West" as something that must be protected from the Muslim hordes. Such leaders often refer to the "Judeo-Christian West". This, along with their enthusiasm for right-wing governments in Israel, protects them against accusations of anti-Semitism, traditionally associated with the far right.

It is not always easy to disentangle racist from cultural or religious arguments in xenophobia. Politicians rarely express racism as openly as an up-and-coming young Dutch politician named Thierry Baudet, who before last year’s election warned against the "homeopathic dilution of the Dutch people" by foreigners. Or the Republican official in Pennsylvania who recently described black football players as "baboons".

Until the late nineteenth century, anti-Semitism was couched in religious terms. Jews had killed the Saviour, Jesus Christ. Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake matzos for their Passover feasts and so on. This changed when pseudo-scientific racial theories took hold. Once biological distinctions were made between Jews and "Aryans", there was no way out of the racist trap.

Silhouette of Donal Trump (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
When Trump declared that the mobs in Charlottesville included "some very fine people" and called Mexican immigrants "rapists", he dragged racism into the political mainstream. Once the most powerful person in the Western world incites mob violence, it is clear that the West, however one defines it, is in serious trouble

Islamophobia is a form of racism

A common theme among people who believe that Muslims are a threat to Western civilisation is the refusal to recognise Islam as a religious faith. It is a culture, they say, which they claim is incompatible with "Western values". Precisely the same thing has often been said about Jewish "culture" in the past.

Even though people with a Muslim background come in many hues and from many countries (as do Jews), hostility to Islam can still be a form of racism. People associated with it, by practice or by birth, are aliens who must be cast out.

And this type of bigotry rarely stops with Muslims. I doubt that the crowds in Chemnitz hunting down anyone who looked vaguely non-European were especially concerned with matters of faith or culture. The slogan of the screaming rabble was: "Germany for the Germans, foreigners raus!"

The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were celebrating southern culture by sporting symbols of the old Confederacy and attacking black people; the whole point of the Confederacy was to protect white supremacy. That is what the demonstrations were about. But the participants were also shouting: "Jews will not replace us!"

Such sentiments have always lurked in the margins of Western societies, especially in the U.S., where white supremacy has a long and twisted history. Right-wing politicians, hoping to gain more votes, have often hinted that they might share these prejudices. But when Trump declared that the mobs in Charlottesville included "some very fine people" and called Mexican immigrants "rapists", he dragged racism into the political mainstream. Once the most powerful person in the Western world incites mob violence, it is clear that the West, however one defines it, is in serious trouble.

Ian Buruma

© Project Syndicate 2018

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Comments for this article: The West’s racism problem

OK, But what about the liberal policies of the last 30/40 years? Have not wars and lack of or slow development in the South led to waves of migration? Have not global economic decisions and practices created such influx of refugees. Racism is already there, sometimes hidden, other times open, but what is needed is a conjucture and a stimulus to make it violent in the "West".

Nadeem21.09.2018 | 13:31 Uhr